Much ink has been spilled over the worrying statistical reality that millennials are leaving their parents’ churches, and a lot of them don’t make a return appearance. Mega-church strategists everywhere are no doubt feverishly putting their heads together to figure out how this can still be happening (even after they installed that sick light show and put all their youth pastors in skinny jeans!) Some of these discussions are probably revolving around worship music. Maybe (some of them are still wanly hoping), we can keep tweaking our music formula until it’s so cool our kids will never want to leave, cause they just gotta have their weekly dose of worship band.
That foundation should take a number of different forms: doctrinal, apologetic, and even musical. One of the most shameful gaps in the foundation for many of our young people is a firm grounding in how to defend their own faith, but that’s a discussion topic for another day. Today, I want to talk about building a musical foundation for our young people. In particular, I want to focus on the enduring power of hymns.
There are two major qualities that set hymns apart from contemporary worship songs: The lyrics are denser, and the melodies are more tuneful. Strategists tell us this makes the hymn a bad candidate for keeping young people’s attention. So many lyrics! Melodies that move around instead of sticking with just a few simple notes! Young people can’t focus on that. They want something minimal and hooky.
But I’d like to ask these strategists a question: How do you know that your prophecy isn’t self-fulfilling? How do you know that millennials will just inevitably outgrow hymns? Are you sure they’re not losing interest in hymns because everyone is telling them, “Hey young people, since you don’t like hymns anymore…”?
Recently, I sang hymns at an evening service surrounded by a mixed crowd of old and young people. The boy next to me wasn’t more than 14 years old, but when we got to “Because He Lives,” he closed the book because he knew it by heart. (Okay, “Because He Lives” is Gaither, not technically a hymn, but whatever.) When we got to hymns that were more vigorous, he was eagerly motioning for the crowd to get on its feet. We closed with “Amazing Grace,” and he told me he was laughing at himself for still having his book open. Now granted, his father was the music pastor, but it doesn’t appear that he’s suddenly viewing his dad’s favorite music as un-hip now that he’s reached the magic age of 13 or 14. Quite the opposite.
Why have hymns endured for so long? Why are we still singing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or “It is Well With My Soul” centuries after they were written? It’s because they still have something to say, and they say it well. In a day when the English language has been cheapened and splintered into pathetic, bite-sized portions, the power held by a master wielder of language such as Isaac Watts strikes us fresh every time. We may have forgotten how to rhyme two lines together without fudging it, but we still recognize the immense satisfaction of singing through an entire verse of nothing but perfect rhymes.
The tunefulness of hymns like these is no less vital to their enduring appeal. Let me give another example: I know of a woman who struggles with memory loss, but she can immediately pick up and sing along with old hymns. This despite the fact that her own church is relatively contemporary. But clearly, these old songs were planted in her brain when she was much younger, and with a nudge, they can be unlocked once again. Contemporary songs simply don’t have the same effect for her. I think one simple reason for this is that hymn tunes just stick in the memory better. There are some very nice worship songs out there, but melodically, pretty much none of them can hold a candle to the classic hymn format. (That is, unless the writers are actively trying to model their songs after it and have the skill to pull it off, like the Gettys.)
It’s ironic, since today’s monotonic worship menu is being proposed as easier to remember because it has so few notes, but this is a shallow way of thinking about melody and memory. Some of the richest tunes we love are also some of the most memorable ones. To pick another category, look at some of the old Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes. “Do Re Mi” is playing with the entire scale, but all I have to do is say the title and you’ll start humming it. “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” ripples and rises and falls like a corn field in the wind, but your brain remembers it, because your brain wants to remember it.
The sad fact is, even smaller churches are stunting and patronizing their own young people when they move the kids into the youth service room and leave the old people to listen to hymns. By closing them off from the rich tradition of American and British hymnody, they are closing them off from the combined power of great language and great music.
Parents, don’t wait to plant hymns in the fertile garden of your children’s minds while they’re young. And mega-church strategists, please consider this question: What does it profit a church if it drives away its entire senior population and doesn’t even get to keep its teenagers in the bargain?